This piece originally appeared in MUSE Issue XVIII. Check out the issue here. 

A few months ago, I stepped inside one of my favourite places. As an Art History major, the AGO feels like nothing short of a home. During this final year of my studies, the topic of public engagement has been particularly relevant, especially as we broach discussions of what comes next for our studies, careers, and futures. I might be comfortable with the basics of the history of Art, but what of this ominous future? The minds of Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier seemed to pose a similar question in their brain child Anthropocene.

The exhibit, which was comprised of tremendous, high-definition photographs as well as interactive multi-media, focused on our “human signature.” In spite of the subject of human error and destruction, the work chose to illuminate rather than criticize. It used technology – hand-held devices that showed augmented reality (AR) installations – as a tool to literally place the public into the art, to implicate us in a tangible way.

Some have remembered the AR installations as lacklustre, overcrowded, and ultimately disappointing. Despite these reviews, it’s difficult for me to deem the exhibit anything short of an invocation. I remember the advertisements peppered around Toronto, each emblazoned with the words, COME SEE THE ART YOU HELPED CREATE.’ Maintaining a ‘we’ narrative throughout the experience, the curatorial focus on the collective still managed to leave room for individual perspectives and feedback. At its conclusion, the creators asked their patrons to choose a word that reflected the experience. They admitted that, in spite of the exhibit’s magnitude, their hope was not to hammer down criticisms and concepts on the public, but rather to breed fascination, awe, and curiosity. I am excited by this prospect of furthering conversation outside the gallery, about this new technology’s catalyzing potential for the newest art admirers.

Attention must be paid to the exit space of an entirely different display, in Yayoi Kusama’s profound Infinity Mirrors. The show was brought to a close in a white room, within which visitors could place colourful, spherical stickers in places of their choosing. Trivial to some, I found it intriguing that the artist chose to white-wash our familiar, everyday objects. The focus was once again on the creative collective, on the value of art as it provides as much of a spectacle as it does an opportunity.

We are invited in, so we step inside. We are asked to interact with the work, and we comply, leaving our mark. It’s nice to think of our imprint on these kinds of exhibits as two-fold, with participation promising more memorable results. The idea of a human imprint Anthropocene so vividly highlighted might stay longer with the average viewer. Beyond the clever marketing campaign, these technologies and creative modes might be changing the way we think about art on a day to day basis.

More and more exhibits are using apps like Anthropocene’s for their programming, making it possible for the public to bring the art–and more importantly the ideas behind it–home.


Photograph: © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Grace Guest is the ARTS Editor for MUSE

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